My dad will be 90 years old on December 8. To celebrate, we’re having a big party this Sunday, commemorating the milestone with excellent food, good cheer, and even a surprise or two. My brother, a one-time stand-up comedian, will be master of ceremonies at the festivities. Not surprisingly, my contribution will be providing the historical context.
A few years ago, for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I created mini-magazines with pictures, short articles, and even a few puzzles about their life together—no doubt a reflection of my many years as an editor of Scholastic’s classroom magazines. This time, having just completed the back matter for an upcoming book, I decided to apply one of the go-to standards of nonfiction back matter to my dad’s life—the timeline.
Since I wanted this timeline to make a visual statement as well as an emotional one, I started by searching for software that would enable me both to organize events and import pictures. I found a few different programs, designed for business presentation purposes but adaptable for personal use. I took the plunge and bought one, then started working on the content. It turns out that despite knowing my dad for 55 years, I could not pinpoint as many defining moments and turning points as I thought. So I doggedly pursued the details of his life as I had those of Annie Oakley and Nellie Bly before him, poring over scrapbooks and photo albums and turning every visit to my parents’ home into an oral history session.
I learned volumes. For instance, my dad, who helped found one of the biggest accounting firms in New Jersey, got his start in business at age seven, when his older brother “forced” him to sell copies of Collier’s magazine for five cents door-to-door. He turned 13 in the midst of the Great Depression, so he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with a party at home; he said his best gift was a $2½ gold piece. (Who even knew there was such a thing?) In the 1950s, both of my parents campaigned for Adlai Stevenson; they’ve got a letter signed by Stevenson thanking them for their support and a souvenir ticket to one of his rallies. Later in the decade, my dad continued his commitment to civic affairs by serving on the Citizens Advisory Zoning Committee in our town and the Citizens Planning Association for the area.
When I write biographies, I start with a subject who had an impact on society and use every available resource to try and learn more about who that person was. Working on my dad’s timeline, I went in the opposite direction. For most of my life, I’ve seen my dad from the context of our family, from my particular perspective as his older child, his only daughter. But looking at his accomplishments all mapped out on a colorful timeline helped me get a clear sense of his place in the world beyond our front door. What a great learning experience. What a great man.